Man Bytes Blog Closes
Moore's Paradox and the Belief in False Things

A Proposed Alternative to Dismantling Religion

Discord There are at this time several prominent intellectuals committed to the rather implausible goal of dismantling (or abandoning) religion. In many respects, such people are reminiscent of those who want to ban boxing because of the physical harm that it causes. It is certainly the case that boxing causes physical harm – that is rather the point of the exercise – but humanity has never prohibited things solely on the basis of the harm they cause, else we would have banned war long ago.

As an alternative to the abolition of religion (ironically, an entirely metaphysical goal, and one that I suspect is quite impossible to achieve except by rendering humanity extinct) I propose the following plan of action.

On the one hand, that religious people adopt Charles Taylor's half-serious suggestion to treat “an unfounded total belief in one's own truth” as heresy. I would even go so far as to suggest calling such self-certain individuals “heretics” were it not for the strange aura of cachet that has attached itself to the term. Thus, within any particular communion, faith or religious tradition, anyone who acts as if they are possessed of the total metaphysical truth would be considered an idolater, and condemned in words (while being – in all practical terms – left alone, free to believe in their arrogant version of reality).

On the other hand, that non-religious people do exactly the same in the community of non-believers and condemn (in words alone) those people so consumed by their prejudicial horror of religion that they become, to neutral observers at least, a hilarious (or disturbing) caricature of that which they claim to abominate; high priests of atheism railing against the corruption of mankind by the consummate evils of religion, from which we must repent in order to be redeemed by the true light of reason and progress.

Or if this is too much to expect (for within this “culture war” sides have already been drawn up, making it harder to turn upon one's putative allies no matter how distasteful they may seem) then let the religious people scorn solely those non-believers in the other camp who dishonour the intellectual pursuits by pugnaciously presuming to have pre-empted the philosophical enquiries of metaphysics, while the non-believers decry solely those representatives of religion in the opposite camp whose actions or speech are blatantly hateful – for no-one who follows any of the world's major religions sincerely can endorse hate, and thus those who claim to follow such a path in hatred are charlatans.

That this proposal will undoubtedly prove unsatisfactory to the zealots in both camps only goes to reinforce the idea that what it is truly worth opposing or dismantling is not religion at all, but the tyranny of truth that flows from arrogant self-certainty of all kinds, both religious and secular.

The opening image is Discord from (c) Shoshanna Bauer All Rights Reserved.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

"As an alternative to the abolition of religion (ironically, an entirely metaphysical goal, and one that I suspect is quite impossible to achieve except by rendering humanity extinct)"

Hey Chris, some have argued that religion is as inherent a part of the human brain as language or music (because it's present in all civilizations). It could be but then again I'm not sure. After all, there are individuals who live without religion or without caring for it (as opposed to music, which I think is universally liked). And I've never heard of someone taking brain damage and having their "religious center" impaired (as opposed to language).

What do you think?

Hey Sirc, I'm not sure what Chris will say but I've always been fascinated by the link between religion and the brain.

One aspect of religion is the experience of an underlying order to reality--whether this is called God or Buddha nature or Tao or Logos or whatever... it's almost a recognition of a deeper pattern to things, and the serenity that comes with that recognition.

When you get right down to it, the human brain is a pattern recognizing machine==it has to be to adapt to a complex and ever-moving universe. So, in a way, the heart of religious experience is very much like music, and it's not something that could easily be removed from the brain because it's not really localized--it's kind of the entire brain working in concert.

I suspect skeptics have experiences like this too, but prefer not to associate them with metaphysical concepts, and often regard them as simply artifacts of human information processing--which at least in one sense, they are. The question remains open as to whether such experiences are something else as well--whether that underlying order the religious person infers is actually real.

But whether or not it actually is real, the transformative power of such experiences is real. Check this out:

Sirc: great question!

Recent research has reported a part of the brain tied up with mystical or transcendent experience. Since these experience occur, we should hardly be surprised that we can track them neurologically. However, it would be a step too far to then say that they are definitively "not real". After all, science as a process takes place primarily in the orbito-frontal cortex, but knowing this brain site does not allow us to dismiss science! :)

I think, however, that even if mystical experience can be localised in the brain, religion is not so easily localised. As you may know, I view religion in the general as having three core elements: metaphysics, ethics and central narrative/mythology... Now all three of those can occur in different contexts - science has its own metaphysics, there are non-religious ethical systems (although all, I think, derived from religious precursors) and of course there are stories outside of religion.

All three, however, are bound up with cognitive faculties that as far as we know only humans exhibit. (We don't, of course, know for certain that - say - a dolphin doesn't tell stories).

While it is certainly true that there are people who live without *traditional* religion, it's not so clear that one can live without these three elements I have identified above - and thus not wholly clear that one can get by without a functional religion (or non-religion) of some kind. This, as I've mentioned before, was Tolstoy's view:

"It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion (i.e. without any kind of relationship to the world) as it is for there to be a person without a heart."

(Of course, this view rests on a particular understanding of what 'religion' means).

So, in summary, I don't think religion is tied to a specific brain region or function, but I do believe that religions are related to several of the brain functions that humans exhibit, especially the capacity for abstract thinking, required for storytelling, ethics and metaphysics. And I don't think you can get by without taking a stand on ethics and metaphysics, nor can you avoid some element of storytelling in your life - in this regard, religion might well be psychologically embedded in the human condition.

This I suppose is one of the reasons why I remain confident religion will be with us essentially forever. The shape and nature of those religions may change radically over millennia, but I don't see much possibility of a future human world without metaphysics, ethics and storytelling! :)

Andre: thanks for your comment, and adding your player character to the Player's Handbook. :)

What you raise here links into something I'll be discussing very soon (early January, most likely) namely Kant's views on aesthetics and teleology. I should probably hold my tongue for now, since this will come soon enough. ;)

But in general, the sense of an underlying form or structure (what I might call Spinozan religion, which is also compatible with science as Einstein noted) does appear to be inevitably bound up with the ability to subsume the particular into the universal, what Kant calls the faculty of Judgement.

And more than this shall have to wait for the future posts. :)


Thanks Chris, I'll look forward to it!

At the risk of becoming one of the zealots unhappy with this suggestion, I'd like to defend the "high priests of atheism".

Not all of them. Anyone who claims 100% certainty on anything deserves everything they get, and anyone who blames religion for all the worlds ills is an idiot.

But just shy of 100% certainty is everyday certainty.

Speaking only for myself, in my whole life I've seen no evidence for a God or invisible life-force.
With a lifetime of consistent observations, that rates on par with things like the sun coming up and gravity keeping me stuck to the earth when I take a step.

If I'm confronted by evidence of a divine origin to the universe, I'll be utterly fascinated and forced to radically reconsider my opinion, but in the absence of that evidence, I'm roughly as confident that there is no god as I am that the sun will come up tomorrow.

I appreciate that that is a tremendously abrasive level of confidence for someone invested in a religion, and atheism has done a terrible PR job (and I'm not sure I'm doing any better right now).

However, calling atheism dogmatic is ridiculous. It is a position in line with observable evidence. There are no "Priests of Gravity", no zealous guardians of increasing entropy.

To be an atheist in the face of evidence of the divine is almost a contradiction in terms, but that is what would be needed to truly have athiest priests.

I can't speak, personally, on behalf of the passionate advocates against religion, but I can point out that there are a lot of specific things associated with religion that might motivate such a position, like gay marriage, suicide bombings, contraception, sexism or child abuse.

But justifiable motivation is not the point. Passionate advocation is an important human endeavor. Are you going to talk about "High priests of Peace" when there's an anti-war rally? "High priests of Fair Pay" when there's a wage strike? You can agree, or you can disagree, but if you want to put a gag on them, then I think that's just plain wrong.

In the spirit of your piece, I propose the following: I will not condemn the priests who stand up in front of their congregation preaching love and hope if you'll refrain from condemning the people who get up on the internet to extol truth and reason, even if both groups get carried away from time to time.

Jules: thanks for your comment; I personally thought that I overplayed my hand here, but it didn't generate much commentary so it has rather slipped by everyone's notice.

My "high priests of atheism" quip was expressly addressing people such as Dawkins and Hitchens who provide diatribes which are largely indistinguishable from sermons and who pursue agendas with a dogmatism that is easily the rival of most religious zealots. I don't find either very appealing.

But this was not meant to suggest that all atheists are dogmatic, or that atheism was necessarily dogmatic.

However, I dispute your claim that atheism is a claim in line with observable evidence. One cannot prove a negative. No degree of lack of evidence constitutes proof positive. The consistency of observations in respect of gravity is not comparable to your consistent *lack* of observations in respect of God - and in this regard, I might also question your methodology since, as Joseph Campbell observed, people in India have experiences of God on a practically daily basis! :)

I would claim that a good scientist should be an agnostic about God; since there can be no testable hypothesis about the supersensible, to treat the matter as both closed and resolved seems like a category error. (One could, however, treat it as closed but unresolved, and some atheists do indeed seem to be in this kind of metaphysical space).

And why, I must wonder, would you want to condemn someone preaching love and hope? I appreciate your offer to not condemn such people, but am still confused as to why you should want to. As for "truth and reason", I'm afraid I don't really share your faith here. The former has limited practical objectivity outside of mathematics, and the latter is highly suspect, as indicated by the singular failure of non-religious ethics to reach any consensus.

But, lest I seem to stack the deck in favour of one camp over the other, it is worth reiterating the point that came up recently that even though religious ethicists were able to reach a consensus, this doesn't in anyway represent the sphere of religion as a whole which remains highly fractured.

All of which brings me to my general point which is we're all in the same boat here, and fighting about our beliefs isn't going to help us prevent that vessel from capsizing. :)

Best wishes!

Chris: Thanks for your reply. There's so much here to respond to that I risk losing focus, I'll try and be succinct and on-point.

I agree that dogmatism and excessive zeal are unattractive, but they are nonetheless ubiquitous. I can see the appeal of the label in this context, but it is as inappropriate for atheists as it would be for . There are no priests of politics, there are priests of education, there are no priests of existentialism, and there are no priests of atheism. Even in religious circles, the people who are actively pushing the agenda externally are labeled "activists" and not "priests".

Next point: When I stated that atheism was in line with observable evidence, I first explicitly disavowed a claim of 100% certainty i.e. proof. Nonetheless, to imply that I need proof to not believe something is a fascinating assertion, that I would refute. The strongest counter argument I can think of is a trivial modification of the "One fewer god" argument put forward by Bertrand Russel and/or Stephen F Roberts.

I don't think you will hold me to such a high standard of proof when I choose not to believe in Zeus, Mohammad, Shinto, Wicca and so on, and I think you will have a hard time finding characteristics to disambiguate any specific modern religious belief from the others.

Any invocation of unverifiable phenomenon is going to run afoul of the sheer number of conflicting reports of unverifiable phenomenon. It's impossible to believe them all at the same time because they contradict each other. Where they contradict each other, it is impossible to determine which, if any, are true.

We are reduced to two choices that I see: Choose an internally consistent subset from amongst the multitude of choices, or treat them all as false, until such time as we can verify one or more of them. I would assert that being born or raised into a religion is tantamount to choosing at random.

The great danger of using a metric (the most obvious being popularity) is that the relative scores on your metric might change, potentially even compelling you into atheism (Popularity is clearly a straw man, but according to the wiki, non-
belief ranks 3rd or 4th in the top 5 "religions"
by population.

There is a fine line between agnosticism and atheism in this stance, but I think atheist is an acceptable label with respect to Zeus, and therefore also modern religion. Should any of the olympians present themselves in the future, we should be every bit as quick to change our minds as if we are presented with evidence for any other religion, but in the meantime I don't think we gain anything by hoisting any of these untestable hypotheses about the world up on pedestals.

As to condemning preachers, my concern is the baggage associated with the message and not the message itself. Love and hope are tremendous qualities, but it seems to me they come with a rider of of unquestionable obedience that fills me with anxiety. What happens, I wonder, if preachers start to espouse bigotry and ignorance, or if believers start to accept a similar lack of evidence from their political leaders?

Whoops! I wrote [Insert the political party you don't agree with here] with angular brackets, and it got thrown out as an invalid html tag :p I was talking about how we don't call politicians priests just because they're zealous and dogmatic.

Jules: short of time, but I'll try to cover your main points.

Re: my use of "high priests of atheism", I think you can take it as read that this use is intended to be metaphorical and not nominative, the equivalent to talk of a "Drugs Czar", who is not literally a aristocratic emperor of drugs! :) Perhaps if I'd used "scare quotes" it would have been clearer. :)

And I think, on the whole, I'd happily call such-and-such a politician a high priest of (say) socialism (metaphorically, of course) if their dogmatism reached the degree that (say) Hitchens' faith in atheism does. Fortunately, such figures tend not to get the attention, though. Hitchens, on the other hand, gets his views published in Newsweek etc.

My point regarding proving a negative is well established claim, although certainly debatable. (In fact, if you dig into this, proving a negative depends upon the same assumptions as proving a positive, and you end up in Hume's position i.e. epistemological scepticism).

"I don't think you will hold me to such a high standard of proof when I choose not to believe in Zeus, Mohammad, Shinto, Wicca and so on"

You don't believe in Mohammad? Who founded Islam, then? You don't believe in Wicca? What do the Wiccans practice, then? :) Sorry to be flippant, but I found your objections here to be a little strangely formed.

It's clearer in your case of Zeus since almost no-one today believes that Zeus is an extant entity. But then, the only people who believe that God exists subscribe to a very old fashioned metaphysical stance. See this piece in this regard.

My view here is that you are free to choose atheism as your belief, but this "leap of unfaith" is not that different from the "leap of faith" the theists take, and it's certainly not clear there are any compelling reasons beyond personal choice to move out of agnosticism. You have the freedom of belief to do so, though, and I am open to the argument that this is a "smaller" leap, but this doesn't make it a non-leap.

"Love and hope are tremendous qualities, but it seems to me they come with a rider of of unquestionable obedience that fills me with anxiety."

Sure, for people practicing 17th century style Christianity, and there are certainly people in the world who do. But since there are a great many Christians and practicioners of other religions who do not have this perspective, it fails to hold as a description for Christianity as a whole, let alone religion as a whole!

I think, perhaps, you might be focussed on the negatives in religion. It's understandable - the media lens does a grand job of magnifying these. But there's a lot more under the surface if one takes the time to dig.

Best wishes!

Hi Chris, I seem to have failed to communicate my point more or less entirely :p

The question I was asking is really quite simple. Out of a set of effectively infinite untestable hypotheses, how should we determine which to believe, and which to reject? Should we consider ourselves agnostic or athiest towards those hypotheses that we decide not to believe?

The answer is not so simple. The answer I'm currently working with is, essentially, Mu. If we take just two untestable hypotheses - "There is a god" and "There is not a god", it becomes clear immediately that we cannot affirm them both nor deny them both without contradiction - I believe you were making this very point.

It seems to me that the only reasonable course is to reject all untestable claims as malformed.

If I imagine a world where no-one ever claimed a god, and no one ever claimed that there wasn't one, I am still left with a world with no god. Not in any assertive definitive "There Is No God" sense, but a world that simply never had the argument in the first place.

I hope that's clearer.

Jules: Thanks for clarifying your views!

"It seems to me that the only reasonable course is to reject all untestable claims as malformed."

This is, of course, to reject all metaphysics. But I'm betting you *don't* reject all untestable claims... for instance, I'm betting you don't reject the untestable claim that induction can be trusted, nor the untestable claim that empirical observation can be relied upon. To reject these is to reject the majority of science, since it relies on these assumptions (and in many cases several others besides).

(Incidentally, there was a movement in the early 20th century called Logical Positivism which took precisely this kind of view - the rejection of metaphysics, faith in science etc. It was gone by the mid-twentieth century - philosophically discredited, you might say).

Now I'm not saying you *should* reject these untestable beliefs - in point of fact, we all have to accept some untestable beliefs just to get by in the world. Neither am I suggesting that because you (probably) accept these untestable beliefs that you should dip further into metaphysics (although I like to encourage people to do so!)

All I'm really saying is that since we all live in glass houses when it comes to beliefs, we should draw the line at dictating what *other people* believe.

Hope that makes my position clearer. :)


Hi guys. I don't know how welcome it is for a 3rd person to throw in his 2 cents, but having read this comment thread I really want to.

Induction is very testable. Get me a copper wire, a magnet and a small light and I can test it anywhere, any time. That test will generate evidence that supports induction.

Granted, it will not provide *absolute proof* -- because we can have no absolute proof about anything. I suspect this is what Chris is getting at, in which case he's mixing up evidence and absolute proof in his argument.

How can it be proven that all the fundamental laws of physics aren't wrong, and that invisible dragons are generating the electical current? We can't absolutely prove that's false, but we have such an overwhelming pile of evidence towards electromagnetic induction that it would take the most hardass philosopher to not call it "proven", at least for all practical purposes.

It's like the old joke about the engineer/physicist and the mathematician; you will never reach absolute proof but you will certainly get close enough on some subjects for all practical purposes.

Every decision you make is a bet to some extent. Mostly, you gamble with extremely favourable odds; it's extremely unlikely that your toothbrush is a cleverly disguised snake so you assume it's safe to brush your teeth. The assumption is based on a huge stack of evidence; enough that you'd call the disguised snake scenario ridiculous.

Can you really compare that kind of confident bet supported by piles of evidence, to a bet about the existence of a god?

If you stretch it and use the hardass philosophical stance and demand absolute proof for everything, I guess you could say we're all in glass houses. But in my opinion some are reinforced fibreglass and take a lot bigger stones.

Mark: thanks for wading in! As far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier! :)

Yes, evidence for induction is not a problem - it is proof of induction that is not strictly possible.

The drawer of a ten thousand socks is my favourite thought experiment in this regard. You have a drawer that every morning you pull out a pair of socks, and every morning you pull out two black socks. You eventually conclude the drawer is full of black socks. But then one morning you pull out a white sock - your conclusion was in error! Induction was a useful guide, but it could not be relied upon. (I believe Taleb's "The Black Swan" pursues similar territory).

My issue is not with whether science constitutes proof, but whether the proof that science is reached can be reached without a leap of faith. It is my claim (and the claim of pretty much all non-foundationalists) that it cannot.

Let me quote from the SEP:

"There is a prevalent conception of scientific objectivity [according to which] the objects of scientific study [are] 1. independent of human practices, 2. defined by necessary and sufficient membership conditions; 3. referred to in eternal laws; and 4. discovered by the deployment of foundational scientific methods.
To a significant extent, anti-realist postmodern conceptions of science take these components of naive empiricism to be definitive of the notion of scientific objectivity. Postmodern students of science hold - correctly (Boyd 1999; Sismondo 1993a, 1993b, 1996; Knorr Cetina 1993) - that nothing in actual scientific practice even remotely fits these criteria for objectivity. On this basis they often reach the anti-realist conclusion that scientific research never achieves objective knowledge."

That summarises my position in respect of science, albeit in quite a few words! :) Note that I do not dismiss science as valueless - I actually conduct my own scientific research into how and why people play games. But I am aware that I am reliant on assumptions when I do so.

"Can you really compare that kind of confident bet supported by piles of evidence, to a bet about the existence of a god?"

Your choice to characterise the issue of theism as:
(1) a bet and
(2) concerning existence
...betrays your bias. I've already addressed (2) in the earlier link, in the case of the former you have to deal with the fact that people do have experiences of the wholly other (called numinous experiences in the literature). You want to ignore this evidence (for some reason e.g. you haven't had such an experience, you don't believe such an experience is ontologically valid, you have chosen to characterise it as delusional etc.).

But I can't ignore this evidence, both because I take a phenomenological approach to religion and because I am open to the idea that my numinous experiences have some validity, along with my contemplative and panenhenic experiences. (I apologise if these terms are unfamiliar, but this older piece provides an explanation, although I don't stand by everything it says any more).

I find it interesting that you think it is you that has the reinforced fibreglass and not that others have mere sugar glass - clearly, your faith in science is strong. >:)

Thanks for joining the discussion!

Sugar glass - that's a good suggestion. When I wrote my post, I spent a good minute groping around for a "kind of weak glass", but none came to me. :p

Now, about my analogy: It was intended to put "belief that your toothbrush is not a snake" as a solidly, reinforced position supported by evidence, and "belief that there is a god" as a weaker position supported by less evidence. While I know I'm pretty arrogant, I'm not quite so arrogant as to assume my position on all things is unassailable. (In fact, I encourage people to throw stones at my glass houses exactly because it's how I learn and grow as a person)

Now that I think I've pushed that metaphor about as far as I can...

When I called theism a bet, I was also trying to communicate that everything is a bet and it's just a question of odds. Every time you do absolutely anything, you are rolling the dice and betting that your fundamental knowledge isn't wrong. Most of the time you're right because most of the decisions you make are based on a stack of evidence, which gives you great odds. In the absense of absolute proof, evidence is the only decision making tool we have.

To tie it to your sock-drawer analogy, each black sock you pull out adds evidence towards the theory that the drawer is full of black socks. Once you've pulled out several hundred thousand black socks, most people would confidently bet that the drawer is full of black socks. This is exactly where I am at in terms of belief in a god, and it's exactly the kind of bet I'm talking about.

The minute a white sock comes out - well, that's the point you can start to examine how rational the subject of the test is. A rational person, operating under scientific principles would immediately spin on a dime and throw the "black sock" theory out the window and seek a new guiding principle of the sock drawer.

Honestly, it sounds like we agree more-or-less on strength of evidence vs strength of belief, and mostly disagree about quantity and quality of evidence. Frankly, I'm not good enough at communication to juggle multiple topics at once, so I want to leave quality and quantity of evidence out of it for now, even though we clearly disagree about that.

If you were to place confidence in any theory on a scale of 7 positions, it would look something like this:

  1. 100% belief - nothing in the universe could shake you from this position

  2. Extremely high belief - strong evidence to the contrary could change your mind but it would shock you

  3. Inclined towards belief - evidence suggests it's right but the jury is still out

  4. Totally unsure

  5. Inclined towards disbelief - evidence suggests it's wrong but the jury is still out

  6. Extremely strong disbelief - strong evidence of the theory could convince you, but it would shock you

  7. 100% disbelief - nothing in the universe could shake you from this position.

I think we can agree that people who give themselves a perfect 1 or 7 on almost any subject are insane, though anyone can reach something like 2 for things like electricity, or 6 for subjects like unicorns... And when you get to that kind of position, you call it "proven for all practical purposes", like the engineer and the naked lady :p

Incidentally, this 7 point scale was borrowed directly from "The God Delusion". I've only modified it to be a general scale for belief, rather than about theism specifically. For what it's worth, almost all atheists (Dawkins included) would describe themselves as approximately a 6, usually with leanings towards 7, but definitely not at 7.

Mark: thanks for continuing the discussion!

We don't significantly disagree on any big point, but I still like to poke at people's faith in reason, as I find it entertaining. :)

"When I called theism a bet, I was also trying to communicate that everything is a bet and it's just a question of odds."

Sure, but behind that metaphor/model is the assumption that what you are primarily trying to do is separate "true" and "false" - your bet model depends upon a Platonic conception. It is this Platonic conception that I reject, really, so for me my choices are not about "betting on true" but rather about finding the path I want to be on. True and False don't weigh so heavily with me in this regard. (Although this is not to say that I don't use this kind of thinking in certain narrow contexts).

"A rational person, operating under scientific principles would immediately spin on a dime and throw the "black sock" theory out the window and seek a new guiding principle of the sock drawer."

Nice idea, but not in fact what happens in science in practice. Some quotes to illustrate. My favourite is from Max Planck:

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

Vannevar Bush reiterates this thought:

"The common idea that scientists reject a theory as soon as it leads to a contradiction is just not so. When they get something that works at all they plunge ahead with it and ignore its weak spots... scientists are just as bad as the rest of the public in following fads and being influenced by mass enthusiasm."

Back to you:

"For what it's worth, almost all atheists (Dawkins included) would describe themselves as approximately a 6, usually with leanings towards 7, but definitely not at 7."

Well, here I somewhat disagree. I believe that fanatical atheists may say they are not at the top of the scale, but only because they are bright enough (pun intended!) to know that if they claimed they were there it would discredit them! :) But I find Dawkins' political philosophy (if one can claim it to be such) to be quite horrific whether or not he is absolutely certain - to advocate taking children from their families would be an act of fanatacism regardless of whether the individual denied being 100% certain. (By the way, I quite liked Dawkins' middle work on evolution - whenever he stays off the topic of religion, he can be quite enjoyable to read).

But honestly, my concern is not whether or not people are completely certain - everyone, whatever they say, is completely certain of a few things, and this is a functional requirement for living in the world.

What I am advocating is nothing more than an abandoning of the old idea that the way forward is to find the one true model and then force it upon everyone. This did not work for Christendom (which murdered their religion in pursuit of truth), it is potentially even more dangerous when pursued under the auspices of reason and science.


I've heard others claim that Dawkins wants to take people's children away, but for all my googling I'm totally unable to find him actually saying or writing it. I'm turning up nothing but black socks.

Now here's a chance for me to stand by what I say: Show me the white sock, and I will spin on a dime and agree with you that he really does sound like an extremist.

Hi Mark,

I'm not sure I would call Dawkins an extremist, per se - the problem in this regard is the implications of what he says, not what he actually says, and it is in here that the furore originates.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins makes the case that allowing children to be raised in an earlier cultural form could be construed as tantamount to child abuse. The following quote is illustrative:

"There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of [cultural] ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions." (p. 372).

By characterising (in this case the Amish way of life) as "inhumane" there is a direct attack here - and the legal implication of this attack is the idea that the law should be able to intervene in these cases and take the children way. Dawkins does not make this case directly - he does not go all the way into extremism - but he opens the door to it.

When Islamic mullahs provide door-opening justifications to violence without actually advocating violence, they are justifiably criticised for doing so (even by Muslims, since this kind of hatred is deeply antithetical to the principles of Islam). They may even be labelled extremists. Dawkins opens himself up to the same criticism by making a parallel case for taking children away from their parents in The God Delusion.

Under free speech, I defend his right to make these claims. But as an individual, I am slightly horrified that a talented, well-educated intellectual such as Dawkins could fall into this trap of cultural elitism, and open the door to a disturbing kind of nonreligious extremism that would seek to violate our human rights agreements.

The positive side of Dawkins recent polemic was that it was an attempt at "Atheist Pride", one that I suspect was necessary. It is tragic that it did so, in part, by attacking other cultural forms - it made atheism out to be inherently bigoted. In doing so, there was a grand disservice paid to all nonbelievers.

So, perhaps not a white sock, but it's a very light grey. ;)

Best wishes!

Hi Chris

Thanks for the reference. I managed to track down a copy of The God Delusion to look it up. I had once read it, but that was a long time ago.

The passage you quote and the comments regarding abuse both come from a chapter called "Childhood, abuse and the escape from religion". So I sat down this morning and read that chapter. I strongly disagree with your interpretation of it. The entire chapter is dedicated to the argument that children should be taught to think for themselves, and that indoctrination with threats of persecution is child abuse. That's a sentiment I completely agree with, and I suspect you do too.

When Dawkins speaks of child abuse, he is referring specifically (and explicitly) to the practise of psychologically attacking children with fear and threats. eg: telling children that their deceased friend went to hell for being the wrong flavour of Christian, or threatening to excommunicate them if they "stray from the path". As a particular example from my own experiences, I know a young school-aged girl who made a mistake and accidentally fell pregnant. Her situation is rough as hell, but her parents are throwing her out on the street for "going against god's will"! More unbelievably, the community around them consider this to be acceptable behaviour! This, and other methods of forcing religion on children is the kind of thing Dawkins is condemning as child abuse, and I can only wholeheartedly agree with that.

I don't understand how this implies that Dawkins "advocates taking children from their families". In fact, the chapter opens with an outright condemnation of the practise, using the Roman Catholic church of the 1800s as a particular example.

Also, I totally disagree with you that the quote about Amish children is illustrative of the chapter at all. Without context, it sounds like he is against the idea of teaching children about their heritage or cultural background.

In context, the paragraph is referring to a court case in which Amish parents fought for (and won) the right to prevent their children from receiving a proper education, because it might "undermin[e] the Amish community and religious practice." He makes the point that at no point were the children asked what they wanted; their right to choose is being sacrificed in the name of preserving a piece of culture they have no choice but to participate in.

The entire point of the chapter is to express that children should be free to choose for themselves, and free of threats from their parents that steer their choices.

I don't understand how you reached your interpretation of it, but I'm going to have to disagree with you and call that sock black.


Thanks for continuing our discussion.

I should point out that my explanation above is intended to explain why people talk of Dawkins as wanting to take their children away. I was not in this regard trying to express my own opinion on Dawkins' views, but explaining why what he wrote opens the door to that interpretation.

(My own view, in brief, is that Dawkins is philosophically and politically naive and should have kept his nose out of these sorts of issues if he was not willing to commit more time to researching and understanding the relevant issues).

"In context, the paragraph is referring to a court case in which Amish parents fought for (and won) the right to prevent their children from receiving a proper education..."

When you say "proper education", you make a culturally loaded assertion. A typical Western education is not a proper education for an Amish person, any more than it would be for a Kpelle tribesman. Pretending that a good education is culturally independent embeds grave dangers into your thinking. (See also Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society" for a critique of the Western school system in its entirety - a critique I am largely in support of).

"He makes the point that at no point were the children asked what they wanted; their right to choose is being sacrificed in the name of preserving a piece of culture they have no choice but to participate in."

Under international law, standards of care are judged in respect of the culture the individual comes from - and with good reason. There is no absolute standard to apply in all cases, and the attempt to do so becomes very destructive very quickly.

Would you wish that (say) the culture in the United States be legally adjudicated by standards of living that are preferred (say) in China? I doubt it.

You presuppose in this account that children have a right to choose - but this is clearly some kind of error. If children had the right to choose, a great many would not choose school! :) It is inherent to the concept of childhood (which, incidentally, Illich also criticises) that one does not grant children full control of their destiny; this is a right obtained at adulthood. In extreme cases, a petition for emancipation can be raised, but few people would feel this was justified in the case of the Amish.

"I don't understand how this implies that Dawkins "advocates taking children from their families". In fact, the chapter opens with an outright condemnation of the practise, using the Roman Catholic church of the 1800s as a particular example."

Indeed, Catholic critics of "The God Delusion" were agog at the way Dawkins criticises this part of their history, then immediately presents an argument for a parallel abuse justified by his own resolute beliefs! :)

To argue that some conception of the "child's rights" in some given culture must be judged by a standard imposed from the outside and against both the cultural norms and the wishes of the parents is to take a side in legal issues which favours State intervention into the family. This is why I talk about the legal implications of what Dawkins says.

In parallel to what I say above, shall we say it is moral for the Chinese to invade the United States and shut down all the McDonalds in order that US children eat a far healthier diet of rice? (This is an exaggerated position, of course, but I hope you can see what I am gesturing at!). :)

Perhaps your issue here is that you are buying into the idea of "children choosing for themselves", but this ideological construct is deeply flawed. Are teenagers free to choose to be gangsta's and gangbangers? Are parents wrong to forcibly argue against their children becoming such (because such argumentation constitutes 'threats')? The question of what constitutes a threat in these cases is extremely open, and certainly not foreclosed in advance.

The idea of religion being forced upon children presupposes a cultural elitism that (thankfully) a great many people in the world find abhorrent. Ironically, many of us find it thus because we are horrified by how such logic was employed during colonialism to "civilise" children of "savages". Dawkins logic is so chillingly close to this that I find it easy to understand why people were both horrified, and skipped ahead to the ultimate logical extension of what was being implied.

The fact that you see a black sock here may reflect your partisan commitment to Dawkins position more than it does a claim of objectivity - this is a 'weakness' (or perhaps strength!) of being human that we all have to deal with. If you cannot see the sock as grey, then I wager you are not able to see this issue from other people's perspectives, only from your own.

What I am trying to do here in our dialogue is reflect to you how Dawkins' assumptions play to a wider audience; what it seems you are trying to reflect to me is the sound and rational basis you feel at the base of Dawkins' suggestions. But sadly, I have a partisan commitment to our human rights agreements which allow parents the right to choose how their children are educated; this to me is an important safety net in our freedoms.

There are two basic choices: the State has the ultimate say in how children are to be raised, or the parents do. Our human rights agreements prioritise the family over the State. Human rights lawyers and moral philosophers and are more or less united (with a few exceptions) in the view that it takes extreme circumstances to justify breaking up a family. The passing of cultural traditions such as religion does not constitute extreme circumstances.

Hope this clarifies!

It may well be that we will not reach much of an accord in respect of this issue, in which case it would be sensible to work towards the resolution of any trailing points. Not all debates can be concluded in mutual assent, after all. :)

Best wishes!

If you don't believe Dawkins actually advocates taking children away from parents, why did you outright say that his "political philosophy" "advocate[s] taking children from their families"? It's an extremely inflammatory (and baseless) thing to say.

Your statement that "There are two basic choices: the State has the ultimate say in how children are to be raised, or the parents do" is painfully naive. Can you say the state is siezing ultimate control over children when they write laws requiring child safety seats in cars? There are a multitude of ways to enact a societal change: convincing parents against bullying their children, changing societal norms through awareness raising, and - yes - in some cases laws that can range from non-intrusive to intrusive.

I don't think anyone is advocating intrusive laws such as sending in the stormtroopers to take people's children away. This is something you are using to stuff your strawman so you can spend multiple paragraphs smacking it down.

As for the Amish and school: If you feel that the school system is inadequate at meeting the population of your country's needs, then that is an entirely separate discussion. The solution is not to allow parents to use this an excuse to entrap their children.

As a particular example, check out Australia's laws on indigenous children's education; we explicitly require that schools teach them to read and write in their parents' language to help preserve culture. It's not 100% but it's a step towards providing a balance between education and cultural preservation. They are not mutually exclusive.

Why do I say it's entrapment to allow the Amish to keep their children uneducated? Kids with Amish parents have a rough time if they want to break away from their parents' choices. They're threatened with being kicked out of their home and community if they break the Amish way of life, into a world they're prevented from learning about. If a child is kicked out of most other family, at least they have some job prospects and some basic understanding of the society they're in. Without even a basic education, where will the ex-Amish child go? What can they do? They're trapped.

Dawkins is not saying "how dare you teach your children religion", he is saying "how dare you trap your children!" Stunts like withdrawing education or threatening kids with violence or eternal damnation to keep them trapped in their parents' philosophical views is abusive! Nobody is speaking out against the idea of telling your children your own views, without threats or entrapment. I know I'm telling my son what I think, but making it clear that I'll love him no matter whether he agrees with me or not.

It's also not about just letting kids go hog-wild either, as in your examples of "gangsta's and gangbangers". There's a difference between parental guidance and parental entrapment.

Not everyone follows the "modern Christianity" you describe; around the world and even in your country (which I presume to be the USA) there are plenty of instances of parents threatening their children with horror stories and excommunication if they don't fall in step!

You also accuse me of cultural elitism. That label would only apply if I truly believed that everyone in the world should have my views and my culture, which is clearly not the case. However, speaking mostly of other countries, how does genital mutilation sit with you? If the culture says it's not only ok but expected for parents to mutilate their young girls' genitals, does that make it ok? Is it cultural elitism to say that's not such a hot idea?

Late in your post, you juxtapose two things; you claim that I have a "commitment to Dawkins position", and that on the other hand you have a partisan "commitment to our human rights agreements".

Firstly, this is false. On the points I agree with Dawkins, it is not because I just want to follow the man; it's because those points are things I agree with on their own merit. I can actually think for myself.

Secondly, whether this was deliberate or not, I find the two "partisan commitments" put side-by-side like this present a false dichotomy. It implies that Dawkins (and my) views are mutually exclusive to human rights. I think it's worth pointing out plainly that this is not the case.

If you would like to bring this debate to a close in disagreement, I won't argue with that. I doubt we will reach mutual agreement, but I would at least like you to know what you're arguing against even if you don't agree with it.

I feel that you've been arguing against things I haven't been arguing for and that won't lead us anywhere useful at all.

Hi Mark,

I'm willing to accept the criticism that by representing the logical conclusions of Dawkins' rhetoric as his express political philosophy I may have overstepped the mark. However, this is the baggage of the wider debate now; I don't believe I can be placed personally responsible for this. If I am misrepresenting, you are well within your rights to present the counterpoint. It would be nice if Dawkins had made a statement to this effect, to help remove the misunderstanding. Do you know if any such thing exists?

It is important to remember that our human rights agreements allow parents the right to decide how their children are educated. Dawkins is arguing against this right. I appreciate from his perspective, he sees this as improving the morality of these agreements; I am not so quick to undermine the family, personally, and believe that there is wisdom in this aspect of our existing human rights agreements. I should not have suggested that Dawkins was against human rights, just against the specifics of two of our already agreed human rights (freedom or religion, freedom of education).

To my knowledge, no specific culture has an objection to seat belts. :) But I don't think one can compare health and safety ordnances, which are endorsed by the majority, with the perspective of religion as imprisoning children, which is endorsed by a small minority. I appreciate, however, I may have rushed too soon into a black-and-white juxtaposition which did not help our discussion. Still, in general, I believe family takes precedence over State intervention except in extraordinary circumstances, and this is how the laws in most countries are written.

I don't find your arguments against the Amish convincing, personally... to my ears, these sound too much like the arguments that were used to justify the "education of savages". I appreciate this does not seem that way to you. I understand the Amish actually require their people to spend a year away from their way of living before deciding if they wish to live that way; I accept your issue that such people might be disadvantaged if they choose to leave, but my understanding is that most do return.

In the case of circumcision rites, I am personally horrified that so many boys in the United States are circumcised without (from my perspective) any reason at all. But this is the cultural norm in that country, and it is not my place to dictate otherwise. For an argument in favour of allowing traditional African practices, see Kwame Anthony Appiah. He does not commit to one view or another, but he is not quick to judge other people's cultural practice by Western standards.

We both agree that it is sad that parents sometimes intimidate their children. You seem particularly offended when this happens in the context of religion. I don't see a great deal of difference between this and, say, parents intimidating their children into slaving over good grades. Neither strike me as good parenting. And either way, I believe this is a private, family matter that we can discuss as a community of people between one another, but that we should not bring the State apparatus into play for the purposes of intervening unless it rises to the level of abuse, as defined relative to any given culture.

If I am not arguing against your views, then we are dancing around the point. Feel free to state a brief summary of your views so we can refocus, if this would be helpful, but it might be safer to close down this line of conversation unless you have some specific remaining points you want to discuss. It is not my hope to antagonise, only to foster debate and discussion in a spirit of openness and conviviality.

Take care!

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your most recent post. I'm glad to hear that you can see my point about your accusations against Dawkins, at least on this particular issue.

I know that it's common rhetoric repeated about the guy, so I'm definitely not trying to accuse you as its originator. While this absolves you of having created the rumour in the first place, it doesn't stop the fact that corrosive misinformation like this is unhelpful to the wider debate. I feel that this kind of misinformation has been deliberately spread by dishonest people as a disingenous debate tactic, which has managed to elevate such claims to "common knowledge".

I did some digging for the statement from Dawkins you requested. I did find an email conversation between Dawkins and a blogger called Nick Matzke. In the conversation, Nick asks for clarification about a petition Dawkins signed that caused some uproar. His second question in the email directly addresses the point we've been arguing on, and the reply from Dawkins is pretty clear.

Thank you for telling me about the Amish tradition of letting their children leave for a few years to make a choice. I didn't know that, and it makes me think a lot more positively of the Amish. Whether or not Dawkins was right about them in the broader sense, the purpose of including the Amish in the argument was as an example, rather than as a point unto itself. If there are facts about the Amish that make it a bad example, then so be it.

If I could convince you of one thing from this whole debate, it would be this: In this particular case, I've managed to show you that the "common knowledge" about Dawkins' claim was wrong. Maybe - just maybe - there are other pieces of "common knowledge" about prominent atheists that require futher scrutiny.

I don't know terribly much about Hitchens. Having read one book on atheism, I felt I was done with the topic and moved on to read about different, more interesting topics. Speaking only for Dawkins, it seems to me that whenever an atheist comes out and criticizes religion in a public forum, they get attacked viciously from all sides.

Of course, people are invited to come out and say "I think you're wrong and here's why" - that's the whole point of debate. But I feel the attacks have been more disingenous than that. They get their names dragged through the dirt until an extreme parody of their views becomes commonly attributed to them, and you wind up with well meaning people comparing their arguments to imams explicitly calling for violence.

Given my views are similar to Dawkins' on a number of issues, it disturbs me to have my views associated with atrocities like taking children away.

We've touched on a lot of points in our debate. I think it's way outside the scope of a comments thread on a blog to expect we'll get closure on much more. I'm just happy that I've shaken one accusation loose, and I hope that leads to further research.

Thanks for debating with me. I've found it stimulating and interesting. :)

Mark: thanks for returning to bookend our discussions!

The fact of the matter for me is, whatever it may seem in the throes of debate, I am grateful to Dawkins for putting discussion of religion back into the public forum. I do not share his views of religion, but prior to the "New Atheists" religion was largely considered sub rosa, a private and undiscussed aspect of life, and this meant among other things that prejudices towards religion (and towards those who do not practice a religion) went unchallenged, and thus festered.

Dawkins' polemic annoyed me - but that anger motivated me to speak out in defence of religion, something that I might not otherwise have done. In this respect, I am grateful to him, and in so much as he has encouraged people who are non-religious to be recognised as such I believe he may also have done some good.

Glad you have enjoyed the debate!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)